I would defy any journalism graduate not to do what I was doing on Wednesday evening- loitering in the lobby of Nottingham Contemporary in the hope of interviewing Sir Michael Parkinson between courses at the NCTJ’s Journalism Skills Conference gala dinner.
As an NCTJ graduate myself, it would have been criminal to pass up the chance to chat to the interviewer of all interviewers, and get some advice on how to go about achieving half the success he has in a career that spans over 60 years.
Although possibly best known for his long-running chat show Parkinson, Sir Michael began his career as an apprentice at his local paper after leaving school at 16 years old. He worked his way up to a reporter for the Barnsley Chronicle, and eventually became a features writer for the Manchester Guardian and the Daily Express. From there, he made the move from Fleet Street to Granada, first as a producer and then a broadcast journalist.
He told me that all journalism is about being able to engage with people you’ve only just met. Working from that bottom line, interviewing requires two basic competencies: the first is research. “Don’t ask silly questions,” he said. “There’s nothing that puts a person off more than a question to which they ought to know the answer to and a question which has no relevance to people.”
Secondly, you have to learn to listen and develop the ability to think beyond the next question. “It’s like taking the advanced driving test,” he said. “When you’re in a line of traffic and there’s a row of shop windows, don’t look at what’s in front of the first car, look at what’s ahead of the third car, it’s like that in an interview. The next questions not important, it’s the third one down the line and the one after that. It’s all about research and it’s all about listening.”
Parkinson has always maintained he is first and foremost a journalist, not a presenter and definitely not a TV personality. This perhaps stems from his training on at the South Yorkshire Times, which included shorthand, a skill that the NCTJ still deem essential for trainee journalists.
“It’s very important, you can have all the electronic devices you want but if you go into a council meeting or a court room and you can take down a shorthand note, that’s very helpful,” he says. “I learned the hard way, I had a boss who used to make me read his shorthand reports and type them out. I would then have to dictate his story over the phone to him.” And his speed? “I could take down the news.”
It occurred to me that had Parky been starting his career now, he may have made a good candidate for the Journalism Diversity Fund, the bursary scheme designed to help people from socially and ethnically diverse backgrounds into journalism. A working-class boy from Barnsley, Yorkshire, his father was a miner in Grimethorpe colliery and determined his son would not follow him there.
However, his social standing was not something that hindered his entrance into the profession, but something he became aware of later in his career: “When I joined most of my colleagues on local papers were working class people, we weren’t public school boys, and there were a lot of women too,” he said.
“I always assumed that everyone was like me. It wasn’t until I went to the Manchester Guardian that I found out that everyone had a degree and I didn’t, but that didn’t stop me either.”
He gave his endorsement to the Diversity Fund, saying newsrooms should reflect the public they serve: “I see no reason at all why newspapers should not represent the community, it’s a very good idea.”
Having just launched a new show on Sky Arts, Parkinson: Masterclass, he shows no signs of slowing down. Despite the competitiveness of his profession, when asked what his top tips were to succeeding in the industry, he did not hesitate to offer up advice to those young journalists coming up through the ranks:
“The first tip is to understand that you might go into it for the wrong reasons and believe it’s a glamorous job- it’s not. There’s a lot of graft in it, a lot of hard work and unsociable hours.
“Secondly, you have to understand the more you throw yourself into it, the more you’re going to enjoy it. There are more highs than lows, in my experience anyway. I’ve had a wonderful life and I wouldn’t have swapped it for anything.
“The third thing to remember is no matter if you become well known, famous or whatever, never to lose sight of who you are and what you are doing. What you’re doing is reporting, whether you’re doing an interview on television or wherever, you’re back to being a journalist. You can walk down stairs with big bands playing and all that, but in the end what you rely on is the training you had as a kid in a newspaper and that’s what gets you through.”